Troubled Images

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Troubled Images was a significant digitisation project of posters and ephemera in the Linen Hall Library’s extensive Northern Ireland Political Collection. A unique interactive CD-ROM was produced, alongside a book that accompanied a display of 75 key posters that were exhibited worldwide.

In addition to over 3,500 annotated images (expertly researched by Gordon Gillespie and Andy White), the CD-ROM contains 50 essays and nine audio playback interviews:

  1. Mike Catto (School of Art and Design, University of Ulster)
  2. John McGuffin (People’s Democracy Movement)
  3. David Lyle (McCann Erickson, Northern Ireland)
  4. Andy Wood (Northern Ireland Office)
  5. Danny Morrison (Sinn Fein)
  6. Danny Devenny (Sinn Fein)
  7. Cedric Wilson (“Ulster Says No” campaign)
  8. Ray Mullan (Community Relations Council)
  9. Terry Carlin (Irish Congress of Trade Unions)
Press coverage of the publication of the CD-ROM and subsequent global exhibition tour was extensive.

The project manager and former NIPC Librarian, Yvonne Murphy, describes the genesis of the project:

Sometime in 1968, Jimmy Vitty, then Librarian of the Linen Hall Library, was handed a civil rights leaflet in a city centre bar. He kept it. Since then, the Library has sought to collect all printed material relating to recent Northern Ireland politics. In the intervening four decades, a quarter of a million items have been amassed.

The Northern Ireland Political Collection is a unique resource. No other institution in a localized conflict has systematically collected material from all sides—much less collected it, often literally, across the barricades. The Political Collection documents the activities of all parties to the conflict, from paramilitaries to government. It covers publications by organizations on the margins of the direct political process as well as those concerned with social issues. A large number of these items are held by the Political Collection alone.

The literature ranges from the most ephemeral—stickers, leaflets, posters and Christmas cards—to more substantial collections of books, pamphlets, political papers, manifestos, press cuttings, photographs and audio-visual items. Over the years the Library has gained a reputation as a ‘neutral space’. Within it, the Political Collection is a place where any opinion can be consulted. It is a place where decision makers can find material on which to base opinions, or where political opponents can view each other’s material. By documenting current events and making the material available, the Library aims to play a vital role in contributing to a better understanding of the conflict.

For the past thirty years, the poster collection and artefacts of the Northern Ireland Political Collection have been accessible only to those who can visit the Library. Housed in large drawers or cabinets, the material has been difficult to consult. Much of it, moreover, is inherently fragile and could easily be damaged by constant use.

The majority of the posters in the collection were produced during the worst years of the ‘Troubles’. Most were produced cheaply. Many have been taken from walls and lampposts. While in place, they have been subject to the vagaries of the Northern Ireland weather, or have even been pasted over by someone else’s even more current message. Some contain staples, Sellotape, or arrived caked with glue. Others have been rolled, folded, bundled and crushed.

The decision to digitise the posters and other material on CD-ROM was a two-fold one. The decision was made, first and foremost, in response to an ever-increasing interest in the resource, from researchers worldwide. We wanted to make the resource available to as wide an audience as was practically possible.

One of the difficulties of archiving an ongoing conflict is the ever-present risk of losing the archive to the conflict itself. On New Year’s Eve 1993, the Linen Hall Library was firebombed, in error, by the IRA. We came within minutes of losing the entire Library. This, coupled with the physical condition of many of the posters, made us think about the long-term conservation of the collection. We wanted to ensure the survival of this unique, thought provoking and colourful resource. We were acutely aware, also, that the earliest posters in the Political Collection were nearly forty years old.

Many of the activists who produced them in the 1960s were reaching retirement age, and their organizations were defunct. It was important to try to establish publication details and tell the story of the posters while those who produced them were still alive.

Posters are physical remnants of the times in which they are collected and serve as historical documents that help us to understand those times. Their function is to convey the message of the moment, stir emotions, encourage reflection, or promote action. They are not necessarily intended for posterity or library collections. Few of the posters in our collection contain full bibliographic details, and it has been a huge task to accurately describe and tell the story of each one. If there are any factual inaccuracies, we will be happy to correct them, and a correction and updating facility has been incorporated for this purpose. We would welcome the opportunity, moreover, to fill gaps in our information and invite users to e-mail us with additional information at troubledimages@linenhall.com

It is intended that the images included on the CD-ROM represent as wide a range of opinion as possible on the major events, issues, and individuals of the past four decades. In the tradition of the Northern Ireland Political Collection, we have tried to ensure that the information we compile is accurate, balanced and inclusive, and that the terminology used is neutral and objective. We hope that we have produced a useful research tool for those attempting to understand the events of our recent history.

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